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Finding Meaning Through Awe

Students interview each other about an experience of awe, reflect on what that experience reveals is meaningful to them, and consider how to connect that meaning to their learning.

Level: Middle School, High School, College
Duration: ≤ 30 minutes
My Notes: Add/Edit Notes

Planning For It

When You Might Use This Practice

  • To get to know your students at the start of the school year
  • To help students discover what is meaningful to them and connect it to their academic learning
  • To increase students’ sense of connection
  • To infuse joy and enthusiasm into the classroom
  • To foster greater cultural understanding


Time Required

  • ≤30 minutes



  • 8 Wonders of Awe poster (digital or printed)
  • Awe Interview Questions (printed for each pair of students or posted on the board)
  • Nine large poster-size pieces of paper, each one labeled with one of the “8 Wonders” + 1 sheet labeled “Other”
  • Post-its
  • Pencil/pen


Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Recall and describe an experience of awe
  • Discover and learn about what is meaningful to themselves and their peers, and connect that to their learning
  • Reflect on how their personal background might influence where they find awe
  • Consider how their own experiences are similar or different to their peers’ experiences of awe


Additional Supports


Character Strengths

  • Awe
  • Meaning
  • Humility


SEL Competencies

  • Self-Awareness
  • Social Awareness


Mindfulness Components

  • Focused Attention
  • Open Awareness

How To Do It

Reflection Before the Practice

  • Take a moment to reflect on an experience during which you felt awe—the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child.
  • What caused it? How did you feel? Did it shift any thoughts or beliefs? Did it foster a sense of connection to others or to something larger than yourself? Do you think your cultural background or family upbringing influenced how you experience awe? If so, how?
  • Next, looking at the 8 Wonders of Awe poster, did your experience fall into one of these categories? If so—and even if not—what did your experience reveal to you about what is meaningful to you in your life? How can you bring more of this source of meaning into your life or into your work in education?


Awe is a fundamental part of human existence and can help us become aware of what is most meaningful to us. Note that while most people experience awe, the sources that give rise to this experience tend to differ to varying degrees for people of different cultures. Awe experiences can also be tinged with fear, such as the wrath of Mother Nature, inducing feelings of powerlessness. If you are concerned that recalling a moment of awe might bring up challenging memories for students, consider using “invitational” language when introducing the practice.

This practice is meant to help you and your students gain greater insights as to what inspires awe in your students, offering ideas for infusing more meaning into both their lives and their academic learning.

  • Before you start:
    • Place nine large pieces of paper around the room, each labeled with one of the eight awe categories: Transcendence, Big Ideas, Nature, the Life Cycle, Moral Beauty, Visual Design, Collective Effervescence, and Music. Label the ninth piece of paper “Other.” Students will add post-its to these large papers as part of this activity.
  • Introduce the concept of awe to students.
    • Awe is the emotion we feel when we are in the presence of something vast and mysterious that we don’t understand.
  • Share the benefits of awe with students:
    • The experience of awe can open us up to recognizing what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
    • Awe can also help us feel connected to other people or to something larger than ourselves, helping us to see more clearly how everything is interconnected.
    • Awe can help us to feel less stressed, and improve both our mental and physical well-being.
  • Share the “8 Wonders of Awe” poster with students, talking through each wonder. You might share your own moment of awe that falls under one of these categories.
    • Scientists who study awe have found that people usually experience awe through one of the following things. They call these the “8 Wonders of Awe.”
    • #1: Transcendence: Reaching beyond our normal understanding of life through experiences (e.g., religious, spiritual, mystical) that foster a sense of meaning in our lives.
      #2 Big Ideas: Reveling in philosophical insights, scientific discoveries, mathematical equations, systems thinking, or personal realizations.
      #3 Nature: Basking in the clouds, the ocean, waves, trees, birds, gardens, a quiet walk along the lake, the night sky full of stars, or a run through vast sand dunes.
      #4 The Life Cycle: Appreciating cycles of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth, like a child’s birth, a caterpillar’s metamorphosis, or a family’s continuity—from ancestors to descendants.
      #5 Moral Beauty: Responding with emotion to acts of kindness, charity, self-sacrifice, or courage.
      #6 Visual Design: Admiring the complex designs and sacred geometries of visual art, architecture, and nature.
      #7 Collective Effervescence: Becoming aware of a larger “We” during a graduation ceremony or a wedding dance; while celebrating a holiday with fireworks or cheering on a favorite sports team.
      #8 Music: Listening to or playing music with others; tapping our feet, swaying our hips, or clapping our hands in unison with people.
  • Students interview a partner about an experience of awe.
    • Divide students into pairs for interviews.
    • Explain to students that they are each going to have five minutes to interview each other to learn more about where they find awe in their own lives. Give each pair of students a copy of the Awe Interview Questions or post them on the board:
      • Tell me about an experience of awe that you’ve had. If you don’t think you’ve experienced awe, what is an experience you’ve had that amazed you or that made you wonder?
      • Does this experience relate to one of the “8 Wonders” of awe? If so, which one? If not, what would you call your “9th Wonder” of awe?
      • What does this experience tell you about what is important or meaningful to you? For example, if you experienced awe through nature, what does that tell you about your relationship to nature? If you experienced awe through an act of moral beauty, does that tell you that doing good in the world is important to you?
      • Do you think your culture or family upbringing has influenced how you experience awe? If so, how?
    • After the first five minutes, cue students that they should switch roles.
  • Students share their experiences of awe.
  • After the students have had time to interview each other, give each student a post-it note.
  • Ask students to write a brief one or two-word description of what brings them awe on the post-it note.
  • Next, have students place their post-it note on the corresponding “wonder” poster in the room. If their experience does not fit into one of the “8 Wonders,” have them place their post-it note on the poster labeled “Other.”
  • Have students do a “Gallery Walk” (walking from poster to poster) to read other students’ experiences of awe.



  • Have students discuss in pairs, small groups, or as a whole class what they discovered during the Gallery Walk and through this activity. Use the following questions as a guide:
    • What did you notice about what you read?
    • Did anything surprise you?
    • What were some things that the responses had in common? Where did they differ? What might these similarities and/or differences tell us about human nature? For example, how much do our family or cultural backgrounds play a role in our experience of awe? Does age play a role, or our personal interests?
    • What did you discover about what is meaningful or important to you? How might you use this discovery in your learning or academic work? How might you use it to make a positive contribution to the world?



Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley

Reflection After the Practice

  • How varied were students’ experiences of awe? Did they fall into only one or two “wonder” categories, or were there examples of each “wonder”?
  • How might you take the information you learned from the class discussion to help your students experience more awe and/or to connect your academic content to what is meaningful to them?
  • Did you notice any differences in your student’s behavior, for instance, are they kinder to each other? More open to new perspectives?

The Research Behind It

Evidence That It Works

A study of a diverse group of 2,000 high school and young adult students showed that when students attach a personally meaningful purpose that is prosocial in nature to what they’re learning, they are more likely to persevere on a boring academic task and improve their academic outcomes.

And awe may help students discover what is personally meaningful to them. In a study of 187 university students from Shanghai, China, participants who watched an “awe” video about nature or childbirth (versus a neutral video or a video clip of grass moving in the wind) were more likely to act in ways that help the environment. Similar studies have found that awe can encourage prosocial values and actions in students, helping to guide students towards a prosocial purpose.


Why Does It Matter?

Awe is a natural part of learning. It inspires us, making us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and changing how we think about our place in the world. In other words, awe can help students find meaning in what they’re learning—a powerful tool for motivation and engagement. Here is a beautiful story from Humans of New York about a student who most likely experienced awe during a science experiment.

Awe can also help students who feel bogged down by stress caused by worries of belonging or anxieties around academic performance, ultimately stifling their sense of creativity and wonder. Feeling awe can help students reawaken those feelings of inspiration and curiosity which can then improve academic outcomes.

Ultimately, helping students shape lives of meaning is one of the noblest aspects of teaching. As acclaimed adolescent development expert William Damon writes, “This is how all young people should feel about life when they are starting out. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm, and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them.”

“Being here is otherworldly for me, you know. I am still so inspired by all of you. I am still in awe of everything you have achieved.”
–Michelle Obama
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